It’s the beginning of the Lenten Season and you have no doubt heard Catholics talk about fasting, abstaining from meat, and doings acts of charity during Lent. You might even hear other Christians speak of doing these things. What are they talking about, and why do they do this when the Bible clearly says, “..in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”? (1Tim 4:1-3)
To understand why a Bible-believing Christian would read this verse, and then see no problem at all with fasting and abstinence, it might help to understand what these things mean to a Catholic (or to a non-Catholic who also practices these).
Lent is the [approximately] 40 day period before Easter. Easter is the most important holy day of the Christian year because it celebrates Christ’s Resurrection and the reality that He conquered death for us. So, Catholics like to prepare for the celebration of the Resurrection by first preparing themselves to receive Christ more fully into their hearts. The reason it is a 40-day period is because this is the traditional theme from Scripture when it comes to judgment and testing of the spirit (Gn 7:4, 50:3; Ex 16:35, 24:18, 34:28; Deut 10:10; Nm 13:25, 14:33; 1Sam 17:16; 1Kings 19:8; Jonah 3:4) and it is a way for us to imitate Christ, who fasted in the desert for 40 days before His public ministry (Mt 4:1-11).
Fasting is basically the avoidance or reduction of something good. This generally applies to food: we either fast from having snacks between meals, or fast by reducing the portions of our meals, or even by not eating at all for a day if a person thinks it’s an appropriate (and safe) fast. All Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, and on Good Friday, which is the day we remember Christ crucified - just prior to Easter Sunday, when His Resurrection is celebrated. Some Christians fast on various days throughout the entire year, as a matter of personal choice. Fasting is a way for us to discipline our bodies and tame our appetites for earthly goods so that we can strengthen and discipline our spiritual lives and focus on spiritual growth with God. In this way we remind ourselves that we “cannot serve two masters” (Mt 6:24), and so we focus all our desires on God by setting aside worldly goods. Fasting can be found in both the Old and New Testaments showing not only the practice, but how to do it correctly (Dan 10:2-3, Is 58: 1-9, Mt 6:16-18, 9:14-15). Christ not only expected His disciples to fast, but gave us instructions on how to do it, and gave us the example to follow.
Abstinence during Lent refers to abstaining from meat on Fridays, including Good Friday, and on Ash Wednesday. Abstinence also has Scriptural context (Dan 10:2-3) and is a discipline in which Catholics refrain from something we enjoy as an act of penance and spiritual exercise, very much like fasting. On those days of abstinence from meat, we may eat fish, which is the historical symbol for Christ.
So, what about 1Tim 4:1-3? Doesn’t Paul condemn these practices? Not hardly. First of all, Paul would not contradict Scripture, nor would he contradict Christ who expected us to fast and instructed us on how to properly do it. Paul taught, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that the old law is but a foreshadowing of the new, and that ALL Scripture is useful for teaching and learning the faith (Hb 10:1, 2Tim 3:16). Who Paul is talking about there in 1Tim 4:3 are people who forbid the eating of certain foods that God declared to be good, because they still considered those foods unclean or ungodly. You see, the Judaizers, during this time, were still forbidding the consumption of certain meats, not for the purpose of fasting, but because they were still holding onto the old law which Christ fulfilled. Note Paul’s many admonishments regarding works of the law in Romans (3:20), Galatians (2:16-5:6) and Colossians (2:4-23). Catholics don’t abstain from meat because we think it is wrong to eat it or that we shouldn’t eat it with thanksgiving. In fact, we believe the exact opposite…that it is a wonderful and good food from God and we LOVE to eat it, and that we DO eat most of the time…which is exactly why we consider it an act of penance to abstain from meat during Lent, to prepare our hearts to more fully receive Christ when we celebrate His Resurrection.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that, “[The precept for fasting and abstinence] ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us to acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.” (CCC 2043) These acts are done as a form of penance to God by our “directing them to the ‘Father who sees in secret,’ in contrast with the desire to ‘be seen by men’. “ (CCC 1969, cf. 1434) “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” (CCC 1438)
The Scriptures tell us that Christ fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, and that we are to be imitators of God and Christ (Eph 5:1-3, 1Thess 2:14, and 1Cor 11:1). Therefore, why wouldn’t we observe some period of fasting? Are we to assume that we are already so holy that we no longer need to imitate Christ in this? I’m certainly not.
For more details about the historical picture of fasting, check out the first item from this article on the “Boettner List”:
Loraine Boettner’s List: Part 5
For a look at the Scriptural references of acts of penance, a friend of mine has provided 61 references within 46 chapters in the Bible:
Scriptures about Penance
For a brief explanation of Judaizers:
Who were the Judaizers?